The definition of Craft Beer

(or… oh no, not this subject again!)

Craft beer is regarded as being quite the in thing at the moment. Pubs, bars and off-licences are offering more and more beer described as “craft” and a number of brewers have gained big reputations as craft breweries.

Many article and blog posts have been devoted to the subject, and the letters page of CAMRA’s monthly members newsletter “What’s Brewing” tends to be full of fulminating on the subject, often from people seemingly convinced that craft beer is nothing more than an evil conspiracy to bring back the dreaded keg beers of the 1970’s. But what is Craft beer actually meant to be?

The official American definition of a craft brewery is one that has Annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less. Under that definition even the biggest of the big UK brands such as Carling and John Smiths would be defined as “craft”. And in any case, it is possible for big breweries to produce good, well made beers. Just because a brewery is small doesn’t automatically make it better.

Craft beer is often described as being much hoppier then other beer, but does a beer have to be a massively hopped IPA in order to be considered craft? The answer to that is a firm no. For one thing the terms is often used to describe a huge variety of beer, from imperial stouts to Belgian-style sour beers. I have yet to hear any proper explanation of how a beer like Might Oak Oscar Wilde Mild (CAMRA’s champion beer of Britain in 2011) is any less of a craft beer then the likes of Thornbridge Jaipur.

Some people have claimed that craft beer is beer made from new world hop varieties such as Simcoe and Nelson Sauvin. Really? Even the likes of Brewdog have made beer using English hop varieties such as Challenger and Goldings.

There are some people who argue that craft beer tends to be much stronger than non-“craft” beer. But I don’t buy that argument. I don’t see how a beer such as Oakham Citra is any less of a craft beer then it’s stronger bigger brother, Oakham Green Devil IPA. It’s also worth noting the current trend for “session IPA’s” at lower strength then your usual India Pale Ales.

There are those to claim that craft beer is nothing more than a euphemism for keg beer. This is simply a load of nonsense. A beer such as Magic Rock High Wire does not become any less “craft” when it’s served out of a cask rather than keg.

There have even been some people who have claimed that craft beer is pasteurised and filtered. Well, a few beers being marketed as “craft” might be but a heck of a lot isn’t. It’s worth remembering that these days unpasteurised, secondary fermented beer can be, and is served on keg and even in cans so the boundaries of what an unabashed unpasteurised beer loving CAMRA member like myself might consider acceptable are being blurred. And if pubs replace the likes of Carlsberg & Stella with much better keg beers from the likes of Kernel then surely that has to be a good thing?

Is craft beer expensive? Again not necessarily. Although a lot of the new keg beers are undoubtedly pricey, the term encompasses such a wide variety of beers that inevitably, it includes beers made for much less cost.

Is craft beer automatically good? Well no. I’ve had quite a few craft beers that I haven’t tasted good at all. But equally, it’s absurd to portray any beer marketed as being “craft” as being automatically rubbish.

Is craft beer the beer that’s fashionable? Well that might be the closest we can get to what craft beer might possibly be, although even that doesn’t cut the mustard as a definition. For one thing, fashions change. For another, who’s to say that a beer such as the excellent Darkstar Partridge Best Bitter is made with any less “craft” then Revelation IPA from the same brewery?

In summary, it is actually quite futile to provide any sort of clear, workable definition of what craft beer is. There have been many developments and improvements made to the British beer scene in recent times, and a great deal of this is to be welcomed. But trying to pin down what people actually mean by craft beer can all too often be like trying to nail jelly to a wall.

And on that note, I could have been drinking nice beer instead of writing this! I shall rectify this by heading off to my local to drink a pint of real ale.

Thomas Sturgess

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Andy Cullen

About Andy Cullen

Andy has been actively involved in CAMRA since the early 2000s after being recruited to sit on a National Younger Members Task Group. Since then he has held roles on the branch committee including Secretary, Membership Secretary, Magazine Editor, Chair and now Social Secretary. Andy has also been involved with the Steel City Beer & Cider Festival almost every year since becoming active in the branch.

1 comment

  1. The latest Retail Price index (RPI) includes ‘craft beer.’ Hence, I contacted the Office for National Statistics for their definition:

    ‘In terms of the definition, we have purposely not attempted to define a craft beer and have left the description of the speciality beer wide in order to ensure that we are able to collect prices each month in outlets across the country. The aim is to pick up prices for a single 500ml bottle of beer. They are not mainstream beers, are usually well packaged and are sometimes considered to be of higher quality. They must be UK brewed. Fruit/wheat beers, ginger beer and lagers are excluded from the collection. It could be produced by a micro brewery or a major brewer but should not be one of the standard brands. We leave the selection to the collectors and the expectation is that they will select a reasonably wide range of beers that fit the broad description. That way, we increase the number of prices collected and have as wide a sample as possible with the aim of best measuring price change. ‘

    So there we have it, at last a clear definition, the RPI say ‘craft beer’ is UK-brewed and only available in 500 ml bottles.

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